From Sardinia to the USA (Part Three)

Once In A Lifetime (remastered) – revisiting some of our favourite places, but finding new routes to explore. Part Three also includes trips in the UK as we prepared for our USA adventure. The following lines summarise some of the questions I’ve asked myself at various times on my cycling adventures to date;

You may ask yourself “Where does that highway go to?”

And you may ask yourself “Am I right? Am I wrong?”

And you may say to yourself “My God! What have I done?”

The final chapter of my journey from clueless cyclist to American Adventurer focuses on my later trips to Europe, as well as my self-supported UK trips during Covid times.

As well as our annual Spring trip to Mallorca in 2016, we returned to Switzerland in the summer. This time we based ourselves in Martigny & explored the quiet roads up to the numerous hydro-electric dams in the Swiss Alps.

Mallorca again kicked off my 2017 adventures, followed by a first summer foray into the Italian Dolomites. The mountains are unlike anywhere else I’ve visited, with enormous grey crags & alpine lakes in every direction – I really struggled to limit myself to just a few photos from our week in Cortina d’Ampezzo!

We also managed to fit in a week of late summer riding in the French Pyrenees – we were based in Lourdes for our first visit. The mountains were steeper, more remote & wilder than their Alpine cousins! This is somewhere we want to explore further in the future.

Our 2018 adventures kicked off again with a Spring break to Mallorca, however, I had a low speed crash on the first day which resulted in me spending the remainder of the trip sun bathing (which rather ruined my sharp tan lines!), instead of cycling.

My Mallorcan injury kept me off the bike throughout May & early June, so I had a few concerns about my cycling fitness ahead of our 11 day summer trip to Lake Annecy & St Jean de Maurienne. Our luxurious base in Talloires was the perfect launchpad for 5 days exploring quiet mountain passes as I built up some fitness for the huge climbs to come. Hopefully the photos below will show why I love visiting the big mountains – they also show my left elbow being held together with kinesiotape from my crash in April.

The transfer to St Jean de Maurienne took less than 2 hours so we were able to fit in an extra ride on our transfer day up to the ski station of Karellis. This was one of a few lesser known climbs we explored, others included Les Lacets de Montvernier / Col du Pre & Col de la Beaune. We also returned to Col de la Madeleine & Col de la Croix de Fer, regular guests on the Tour de France & favourites of ours.

I went to Ibiza in September for Stevie W’s birthday & managed to hire a bike & sneak in a day of riding – this is another place well worth returning to for further exploration. I also won a competition to spend a day in the Neutral Service Car at the OVO Energy Tour of Britain, which helped me appreciate the difference between cycling athletes & novices like myself!

We returned to Mallorca in 2019. I managed to stay in my bike for the whole trip & we enjoyed visiting a few well known climbs, as well as getting off the beaten track – sadly I haven’t been back since this trip, but I’m looking forward to getting back in 2023.

Our summer adventure took us to Austria for the first time, with 5 days of riding the remote mountains around Innsbruck. Each day offered a different experience, as we mixed routes that looped over the mountains with valley riding along the way, with high mountain roads up to glaciers. While the climbs were challenging, pretty much every day we had the roads pretty much to ourselves.

We then crossed the border into Italy as we returned to Bormio for a further 5 days of adventures in the huge mountains . In addition to the legendary climbs made famous by the Giro d’Italia, we also found a few unknown climbs well off the beaten track.

It appears I must have used all my 2019 holiday allowance on cycling trips, as we also returned to Barcelonnette in September for a week of cycling! Again, we had the roads to ourselves as we combined some Tour de France favourites like the Col de Vars & Col de la Bonette, unknown climbs like Col des Fillys & Col St Jean & an away day to tackle the wickedly steep Col de la Lombarde from both the Italian & French sides.

The world changed in 2020 & foreign travel was off the agenda & the early months of the year involved lots of solo rides to comply with Government Lockdowns & Guidance. Luckily by July we were able to meet up again & although we couldn’t get away to Europe as planned we still managed to do plenty of day trips in July.

Week one saw us exploring the North Wessex Downs, the Cotswolds, the Mendips, the Malverns, Cranborne Area of Natural Beauty & the South Downs. This was a great reminder that there are plenty of places within an hour’s drive that are well worth exploring!

Week Two involved more trips to explore new tarmac. We began with a Tour of the Cotswolds around Bourton-on-the-Water, followed it up with Tour of The Tumble in South Wales, headed out to horse country on a Lambourn Loop, returned to the Cotswolds to explore all around Chipping Norton & then finished with a trip out to Symonds Yat. A glorious couple of weeks that showed there is plenty of scenery to see in the UK.

By the end of 2020 I’d had an application for redundancy agreed at work & had decided that I was going to use it as an opportunity to take on a challenge I’d been thinking of for a few years – riding coast to coast across the USA. Fortunately, this adventure also appealed to Sean, so we started making plans to turn it into reality.

I bought a new touring bike in January 2021 & started training on it in May. I started loading up the panniers to prepare me for what a trip on a touring bike might be like. However, the only way to truly know is go on a tour & find out! In July 2021 Sean & myself embarked on a 5 day Tour de South Wales, taking in Brecon, the Elan Valley, Aberystwyth & Carmarthen via National Cycle Routes 8 & 42. We then returned to Bristol via NCR’s 82, 47 & 4. The scenery was stunning & we were fortunate with the weather – we enjoyed ourselves so much!

We gambled on having an Indian Summer in September & planned a 2nd Tour de South Wales – this time we’d be going in a clockwise direction, following NCR 4 via Pontypridd & Carmarthen, then returning via NCR’s 47 & 43. We were loaded with 20kg of kit which gave us a really good taste of what touring in the USA might feel like. Once again, the scenery was amazing!

As I write this, we’re waiting for our “Fit To Fly” results, sat in the Hilton Garden Inn -we’ve completed 4,500 training miles on our touring bikes & thoroughly enjoyed 2 separate tours to South Wales. The waiting is finally over & technically, the adventure has begun – we fly to Seattle tomorrow (26th April) to start our Tour de USA!!!

Col de Leschaux Loop

Annecy Alpine Adventure – Day Five, Talloires.

Today was all about trying to get my wheel bearings fixed, which meant that straight after breakfast I had an appointment with Mr Google to investigate my options – head to Annecy (nearer, but smaller) or Albertville (further to travel, but bigger). I made the decision to start locally, then travel further afield if necessary, so we were in the car & on our way to Annecy by 9.40am.

Town was crazy, as the Etape du Tour is on this Sunday & it goes from Annecy to Grand Bornard. There was an enormous trade exhibition on the lakeside & there were cyclist types everywhere! The first place was very sympathetic & while not able to fix the bearings, they were able to give me a couple of useful phrases for what was wrong & they sent me to one of their competitors, who he was hopeful could help me.

In the next bike shop they had little English & I had little French – how grateful I was for my phrases from my new friends at Roule et Poul. However, in spite of their best efforts, they couldn’t sort me out either. Again, they gave me the name of another competitor who would be my best chance of success in Annecy – I was so impressed by MTB’s attempts to help me too, even though on this occasion they couldn’t resolve the issue.

A 20 minute walk later & I arrived at Cran Cycles on Avenue de Cran. This place was a cycling geeks Nirvana with framed & signed cycling jerseys from Arnaud Demare & Jerome Coppel, French cycling heroes both. I felt my luck may be about to improve! After 30 minutes of looking through box after box of wheels parts, unlike Bono, he did find what he was looking for!!! My new best friend worked through his lunch break to put the bearings & wheel back together & after handing over €46 my bike was back in business.

I left the bike shop at 12.45 & by 2pm we were on our bikes & heading out for what felt like a bonus cycle ride – as time was short, I drew up a 35 mile route to ensure we were back at a reasonable time. We set off around the lake towards the Annecy cycle path at Doussard. From there we followed the path towards Annecy for 10 miles until we reached Sevrier at the foot of the Col de Leschaux. This is a 7.5 mile climb that rises at a steady 4% the whole way, so gave me my first chance to ride full gas & see how my legs would react – even if I’d got the pacing wrong, I would still have been able to pootle up to the summit!

After a quick photo at the summit, we stopped for coffee, apple pie & ice cream – the perfect recovery food after my efforts up the mountain! The descent on the opposite side of the valley is steeper & technical with a couple of great overlooks to the lake below & in less than 15 minutes, we’d reached St Jorioz & were back among the cars again. Two separate cars pulled out of side turnings without even stopping to see if anything was coming – in both instances I had to take evasive action before stopping to teach the drivers a few ancient anglo-saxon phrases!

From St Jorioz, it was a case of finding our way back to the cycle path & retracing our route back to Talloires. Considering I didn’t have a bike that I could ride this morning, this has undoubtedly been a successful day on & off the bike!

Tomorrow I say goodbye to Hotel Les Grillons, it’s been the most amazing base in idyllic surroundings. & the food has been out of this world. Nothing was too much trouble for Aurelie & Sebastien, who welcomed us into their home. I will definitely be returning to this oasis on Lake Annecy. The adventure isn’t over, however, as we head on to St Jean de Maurienne – a permanent fixture on the Tour de France itinerary.

Col des Aravis Loop

Annecy Alpine Adventure – Day Four, Talloires.

Last night the mountain weather treated us to a lightning & thunder extravaganza which lasted for over 2 hours, incredible to watch, but impossible to film. We set off under grey, bruised skies after our hosts assured us that while we may experience brief but heavy cloudbursts today, it would be dry for the majority of our ride today. The plan was to visit the Col des Aravis as part of a 55 mile, 5,000 foot climbing loop. This is a great route that included a bit of everything, quiet cycle path, long ascents on deserted roads & a couple of fun descents.

The first 14 miles followed a familiar routine, hug the shoreline of the lake as far as Doussard, then hop on the cycle path until we reached the turning for today’s climb – in this instance we had 14 miles under our belt by the time we left the beautiful & deserted cycle track at Ugine. The next 35 miles would be either climbing or descending! During my research, I’d found a high, but quiet back road that would keep us off the main Gorge d’Arly road for the majority of the 11 mile drag to Flumet. We started ascending on gentle hairpins as we left town & then it pitched up to about 8% as we rose ever higher up the side of the gorge. We were riding through pristine pine forest, an intoxicating smell followed us, but sadly it also limited our views from the balcony/shelf road to the valley below.

After about 2,000 feet of climbing we descended back onto the main road for the final 3 mile stretch of gentle uphill towards Flumet. From here the 8 mile ascent of the Col des Aravis began in earnest, as the road snaked its way up the valley. The first few miles were gentle & gave us a chance to get into a rhythm of climbing, but also make good time. At the halfway point of the climb, we stopped for lunch in La Gittaz – a delicious spaghetti carbonara with authentic fromage & jambon was just what the body needed. We’d landed on our feet, as this is also when the heavens opened, so we avoided getting wet!

The final ½ of the climb zig-zags between the huge Aravis mountains at a steady 7% – I now know that so long as I ride within my current limitations, I can tap out a cadence for a couple of hours so this became an enjoyable experience for the most part. It was a different story whenever we zigged (or was it zagged?) into the headwind as that made things more challenging, however, less than 45 minutes after lunch we were on the summit admiring the big views all around us.

As we continued the loop & descended the Col des Aravis towards La Clusaz, St Jean de Sixt & Thones, my bike started to wail like a banshee – this was unlikely to be good news!! I eventually worked out it was coming from the rear wheel & was likely being caused by the bearings. I took things easy on the remainder of the ride & am hoping that the local mechanic in Talloires will be able to swap out the bearings straight away – if not, I’ll hire a replacement wheel for the day & beg that he fixes it for Saturday morning.

We stopped briefly for coffee in La Clusaz, which is a skiing hotspot in winter & a cycling mecca in summer. The Tour de France is visiting this year & they’d entering into the spirit of things, with cycling references displayed everywhere in the town. The highlight was a bike & rider displayed on the roof in E.T. style!!! The Etape de Tour takes place this Sunday over the route of Stage 11 – the Queen (& toughest) stage of this year’s TdF & this was right in the middle of things.

As we exited Thomes, we passed the National Cemetery of the Glieres, which commemorates all those who lost their lives fighting for the Resistance in the 2nd World War – the Maquis were very active in the region & each new generation is made aware of the sacrifices their forebears made to protect their freedom. After a brief moment of quiet reflection, we were on our way towards the 2nd & final categorised ascent of the day, Col de Bluffy – a tiny pimple of a climb & not really worthy of being called such, as it took about 10 minutes to climb!!!

From here, it was a 2 mile descent back to Lake Annecy & then a 3 mile pootle along the lakeside back to our hotel. Another amazing day of cycling, against a backdrop of awe inspiring scenery.

Col de Meraillet, Cormet de Roselend & Col du Pre

Annecy Alpine Adventure – Day Three, Talloires.

Today we jumped in the car & took a one hour drive to the small town of Beaufort, home of the famous cheese. The Beaufortain region is surrounded by the high mountains on all sides & is on my list of places to visit as a base for a week of riding (I picked up a route guide from the Tourist Office, so that’s now one step closer to happening!).

The aim today was to cycle part of Stage 11 in this year’s Tour de France, namely the Cormet de Roselend from Beaufort. If you’ve followed my previous trips, you’ll already know this is where I had the accident which smashed up my left collar bone & wrote-off the bike I had at the time. At 13 miles & with 4,000 feet of climbing to reach the summit, this would be my biggest challenge so far of this year’s trip.

It’s a wooded, green & pretty ascent to Col de Meraillet, with views back down the valley & the gradient is a constant 7% to 8% for these first 8 miles. As soon as we passed this intermediate col, we had our first views of one of my favourite alpine lakes, the glorious Lac de Roselend. The next mile or so followed the shore of the lake & I took the opportunity to gather my mental & physical resources by suggesting a quick coffee & raspberry tart stop.

After a 10 minute stop, it was time to push onward & upwards, as the scenery changed completely & the trees of the lower slopes were replaced with alpine meadows & numerous rivers plunging down the mountain to supply the lake below. The gradient was between 7% & 8% all the way to the summit, which at least allowed me to establish a rhythm & cadence, that while slower than normal, was within my current capabilities.

After 2 hours 15 minutes of climbing, we’d reached the summit & I’m grateful to Sean for happily cycling at my reduced pace & making small talk all the way up – it made the ride even more fun. We managed to persuade a fellow Brit to take a photo of us both, although the language barrier was a bit of a challenge, he was a Yorkie!!!!

Much as I wanted to ride both sides of this mythical climb, today wasn’t the day, as I don’t have the training in the legs this year, however, I’ll be back again to fulfil that dream. Instead, we headed back down to Col de Meraillet & then took a detour across the Barrage de Roselend & then did a short, sharp bonus climb up to Col du Pre. This is a climb that reminded me of a classic Spinal Tap quote where the volume was turned up to 11 – in this case it was the gradient that was louder than 10!!! The real reason for this side ride was the absolutely breath taking view across the Barrage & Lake to the huge snow encrusted mountains in the bacckground. All Alpine lakes are beautiful, but some are more so than others – the mountain to the left of the photo with its head in the clouds is Mont Blanc.

We retraced our wheels back to the Route de Roselend & then took another planned side road to check out the Lac de la Gittaz, which had been recommended by someone who had visited the region previously. Yes, it was pretty, but after all of today’s remarkable scenery, it didn’t stand out as much as it would on any other ride. However, I’m pleased we stopped to see it.

All that remained was to follow the road back towards Beaufort & remain vigilant of the ‘gravillons’ (dodgy as you like ‘chippings’ to you & me!) which have been laid ahead of the Tour de France circus coming to town. I’m usually a confident & competent descender, but this was no fun at all as for 2 miles all I could think of was ‘don’t tense your arms’, which of course made me tense my arms!! I got down the descent safely, so it was time to celebrate an amazing day in the saddle with an artisan ice cream (coconut & rum raisin, as it happens & it was delicious!).

We spent a few minutes strolling round town admiring all the Tour de France paraphernalia that has already been put on display – whole bikes hanging from balconies, bunting in the colours of all the competition jerseys etc. The final treat of today was to stop off at Forclaz de Montmin on the way home, a brutally steep (I wouldn’t be able to climb it at my fittest) 5 mile climb. From the summit we had huge views along the length of Lake Annecy & could even make out our hotel on the valley floor, some 2,400 feet below. What a great way to round off a brilliant day of cycling!

Col de Vorger & Colette de Tamie

Annecy Alpine Adventure – Day Two, Talloires.

After yesterday’s epic day in the saddle, I was unsure how the arm would feel today & with thunderstorms forecast for this afternoon, it made sense to plan something shorter & give my body a chance to adjust to consecutive days cycling in the mountains. We were greeted to a blue, cloudless sky & the temperature was already 75 degrees at 9.15am, so we were in for another scorching ride so long as we could beat the weather!

Today’s route started off mirroring yesterday for the first 7 miles, as we hugged the shore of Lake Annecy for 4 miles, before connecting with the Annecy to Albertville cycle track. Once again, we had the path pretty much to ourselves as we skirted the edges of small villages, passed golden fields of freshly harvested wheat & cut between small lakes where ducks were being fed by the locals.

The first 17 miles were covered in just over 70 minutes, with next to no feet climbed – effectively the majority of the day’s climbing was crammed into the next 11 miles (which also included a short descent). We exited the cycle path just outside Albertville & the road started climbing immediately, as sweeping switchbacks kept us pointing skywards. Although the climb of Col du Vorger was ‘only’ just over 2 ½ miles in length, the gradient didn’t drop below 9% (Sean was laughing as he pointed out the 13% stretch!), so we’d climbed 1,100 feet by the time we hit the Col. The oddity was that although we were at the summit, we were still surrounded on all sides by towering mountains of volcanic rock.

After a brief stop for a photo & to let the legs & lungs recover, we continued following the narrow single lane road & descended through meadows & farmland for 3 miles, before arriving at the start of the climb up to Collet de Tamie (not to be confused with Col de Tamie, which we’d descend to later!). The stats tell me it was a 5 mile climb with 1,600 feet of climbing, however it was much tougher than that, as the first mile only rose about 150 feet, meaning the remaining 4 miles was at a leg sapping (for me at least) 8%. The saving grace was we were protected from the relentless sun, the temperature again topping 100 degrees at its hottest.

We stopped for a quick photo opportunity at the summit of Collet de Tamie before taking an immediate left turn to visit Fort de Tamie (our coffee stop yesterday) where, today we stopped for lunch. We relaxed in the shade over a panini, lemonade & ice cream, before retracing the first 16 miles of yesterday’s ride, with a slight detour for a photo op at the Abbaye de Tamie. This was my favourite descent so far, as the gradient was relatively gentle as the smooth tarmac swept us towards Faverges, where we connected again with the cycle track towards Talloires.

We made a brief stop at Doussard, where we watched a group of parapenters who had launched themselves off the cliffs some 2,000 feet above us coming in to make the most delicate of landings in a field close by. We then followed Lake Annecy’s shoreline, admiring the stunning alpine blue of the  water against the dark blue of the sky above. The threatened thunderstorms didn’t ever arrive today (although they are forecast for later in the week), so we made the most of the early finish & the stunning weather, to spend an hour or so by the pool, working on the tan.

I feel I should apologise for one of the photos, as I look like a badly stuffed sausage, but this is what happens when you continue to eat like a cyclist, when not training like one!

Col de Tamie, Col du Frene & Col de Leschaux

Annecy Alpine Adventure – Day One, Talloires.

After 9 weeks of worrying whether I would be able to cycle or not, today was the day I would find out where my fitness is at & what I’m capable of doing (or not). The plan was to ride well within my comfort zone, but have a couple of testing climbs to see where I’m at – today’s ride absolutely tested my fitness!!!

We rode straight out the hotel & followed a quiet main road by the side of Lake Annecy for 4 miles, before picking up the Annecy to Albertville cycle path (which follows the old railway line route). It was the perfect start, flat, quiet & cool for the next 5 miles. As we reached Faverges, we said goodbye to the flat & started up the Col de Tamie, the perfect climb to warm up the legs as it rises about 1,500 feet over 7 ½ miles – it’s never too steep as it climbs next to a babbling brook, before opening up onto low alpine meadows & heading past the medieval abbey. After a quick photo stop at the col, we continued climbing another 250 feet or so up to the Fort de Tamie for a refreshing lemonade.

We descended back to the col summit, then continued down the opposite side of Col de Tamie. This was my first proper downhill since my off in Mallorca – if I was being kind to myself, I was hesitant to say the least. However, I at least gained confidence from getting down safely.

Once we’d descended almost as far as Albertville, we bounced along the valley floor with huge alpine mountains on either side. Our next challenge was one of these & it wasn’t long before we were climbing the lower slopes of the Col du Frene, a steady 7.5 mile ascent  with a couple of 10%+ ramps in places. We were in switchback heaven with huge views to the valley below & the snow peaked mountain peaks opposite – we were both looking forward to getting a photo once the climb finished, as well as topping off our water bottles & grabbing a bite to eat. Sadly there wasn’t anywhere open, so we had to make do with a banana & energy bar.

The next 10 miles or so was a gentle descent onto the lowest part of the massif that towers over Lake Annecy. We had one final climb, which we’d ridden on a previous trip, the long drag up to Col de Leschaux – this was where I knew for sure I’d taken on 30 miles & 1 climb too many! The road rose at 4% to 6% for about 5 miles, but today in temperatures of 90 degrees & lacking my usual fitness, it was a bit of an effort to say the least.

By the time we completed the final climb of the day, we’d ascended just over 6,200 feet in total – by far my biggest climbing challenge of the year. We stopped for a quick picture at the top of the Leschaux, before dropping all the way back down to the side of Lake Annecy, however, we still had to circumnavigate ½ of the lake! I needed some sugar to get me home, so we made a much appreciated stop in a little café, so I could top up on a small ice cream & coke, before making the final 15 mile push for home. One more unexpected surprise was waiting for us, for the first time in about 5 trips, Sean suffered a puncture……then another one & then a 3rd in the space of 5 miles! Even now we don’t know what caused them, as there wasn’t anything obvious wrong with the tyre or the wheel.

We returned home via the cycle path & then retraced our steps along the lake & back to the hotel. A truly epic & rewarding day in the saddle & a great marker for what I’ll be able to do on the remainder of the trip. We got back in time to spend an hour poolside relaxing & topping up our tans, the perfect end to our first day in Annecy!